The New York Times reports:
GENEVA — In a vote that displayed a widespread anxiety about Islam and undermined the country’s reputation for religious tolerance, the Swiss on Sunday overwhelmingly imposed a national ban on the construction of minarets, the prayer towers of mosques, in a referendum drawn up by the far right and opposed by the government.
It had to be voted on because two political parties proposed adding the ban to the constitution. But the government doesn’t like it.
The Swiss government said it would respect the vote and sought to reassure the Muslim population — mostly immigrants from other parts of Europe, like Kosovo and Turkey — that the minaret ban was “not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”
There might have been other motives besides reassuring the Muslim population.
That debate prompted the government to mount a public relations campaign overseas to try to avoid a backlash like the one Denmark faced in Islamic countries after a newspaper published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and to avoid damage to lucrative commercial and banking ties with wealthy Muslims.
Switzerland doesn’t appear to have much of a problem with militant Islam at this point.
Of 150 mosques or prayer rooms in Switzerland, only 4 have minarets, and only 2 more minarets are planned. None conduct the call to prayer. There are about 400,000 Muslims in a population of some 7.5 million people. Close to 90 percent of Muslims in Switzerland are from Kosovo and Turkey, and most do not adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with conservative Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, said Manon Schick, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International in Switzerland.
But the people see what is happening in other European countries. And they don’t want it. The Swiss are probably the most nationalistic country in Europe, in terms of taking action to keep their country Swiss. They were neutral during WWII, and every other war. They have universal military service (for men) and keep their guns at home. This insularity was not good for the Jews. A Google alert link I got last night (which I can’t open) says:
In total, the Swiss deported more than 30000 Jewish refugees, most of whom were subsequently murdered by the Nazis. Those allowed to remain in Switzerland were held in detention camps so as to keep from taking up permanent residence…
But there are lots of foreigners in Switzerland now; but I doubt if that would be the case had the country’s immigration policies been subject to a vote. As the story makes clear, the government does not represent the feelings of the people. It will be interesting to see how this complex story plays out.
Update: Here is a great post from David Pryce-Jones on the National Review website. It’s far more informative than the New York Times article. Some excerpts:
The ban follows quite a bit of contention which started when the king of Saudi Arabia bought a house on the shore of Lake Geneva. Launching a building program without first obtaining the requisite permits, he was obliged to stop and pull down extensions. Geneva already had a mosque, and when the Saudis wanted to build another one, the city fathers replied that permission would be granted only when the Saudis reciprocated by allowing the building of a church in Saudi Arabia.
Would that every government were as brave and forthright as this. And here’s why it became an issue:
In a population of some seven million there are 400,000 Muslims worshipping in about 150 mosques, half a dozen of them with minarets. In the small town of Wangen, in 2005, the imam of a largely Turkish community applied to add a minaret to his mosque. He was allowed to do so, but the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a crypto-Islamist, had been unwise enough to issue a blanket defiance to Western countries: “Mosques are our barracks, domes our helmets, minarets our bayonets.” A politician by the name of Christoph Blocher picked up the challenge and made a national issue of it. A lawyer by training, he is a successful industrialist, the founder of the Swiss People’s Party which has a right-wing platform, and he has been a government minister.
Western countries should all take such actions in response to every Islamist challenge. And here’s Pryce-Jones’s conclusion:
No country in Europe quite knows what to do about the Muslims who have come to live there. What exactly should be conceded to them, and why? These puzzling questions go to the core of national identity. Defying those who claim the right to set the terms of public debate, the Swiss have tried to draw a line. Whether the opinion-making elite of the entire continent will allow them to keep to it is quite another matter.